Jim Griffith knows trees. As a forester for more than thirty years, he also knows the tree industry. In 1995, he began writing a monthly column in Georgia Farm Bureau’s magazine called “Timber Update” that educated timberland owners on the latest news in forest management.
The column was so popular Jim continued it until he left the bureau in 2009 to form his own consulting firm. Since then, Jim’s twenty-eight year old son, Taylor, has taken the reigns of Timber Update. But instead of writing a magazine column, Taylor started a niche service dedicated to propelling the timber industry into its next generation.
Timber Update, LLC exists for two reasons: to educate the public on the value of professional timber management, and to give landowners access to reputable professionals in the timber industry. “We’re updating the way the timber industry connects with people,” Taylor Griffith says. Through relevant media and a network of quality contractors, this rapidly expanding service is making huge strides to improve the quality of timber management and, as the name implies, contemporize an industry that has been pining for innovation since the conception of Google.
In the summer of 2012, Griffith assembled a team of researchers to learn more about forest landowners in the South. “It didn’t take long after starting our market research to learn that there were a lot of people who didn’t understand the value of timber management,” Griffith said. “Consequently, their land wasn’t being managed. They have trees, but no plan. In fact, only five percent of private timberland owners were managing their timber. We found that our first job was to address the stigma surrounding the value of timber experts.”
But this “stigma” would be complicated to undo. In the same way that unknotting a rope sometimes requires careful maneuvering of both ends, changing the way landowners and timber professionals communicate involves lending a hand to each party: the pros must be made accountable and accessible, and the people must become educated and responsible. “Timberland owners need an easy way to access trusted professionals,” Griffith said. “The process of finding a reputable timber consultant is very archaic—for the most part it’s word of mouth.” Some organizations have attempted to improve the visibility of good consultants, but, as Griffith points out, all too often the landowner is left guessing: “At best, someone could contact their state’s forestry commission and get a list of twenty names, or a landowner association and get the same list with five recommendations, but, in the end, it’s up to the landowner to find the right person. We’ve decided to take the confusion and guesswork out of the process and make it easy. When a landowner contacts us, we match them up with a trustworthy contractor in their area, someone who fits their needs and has a reputation for quality.” And quality is exactly what Timber Update knows how to recognize.
Growing up as the son of a forester, Griffith witnessed firsthand what it meant to be a trusted professional. “I grew up planting trees, watching controlled burnings, using an inclinometer—you know, all that stuff,” he says. “But the things I’ll never forget were the relationships built between my family and the landowners. Dad and I would drive out to visit families, ask how everyone was doing—not just check on their trees. One lady from Alabama would even call my sister just to chat about life. They trusted Dad with their land because he treated them like friends.”
Griffith is sympathetic towards landowners who have been scarred, whether it’s from poor tree management, ecological damage, or financial weaseling. “Timber is a very personal and familial investment,” he says. “One or two bad experiences can leave a great distaste in an owner’s mouth. Even still, we estimate that only twenty percent of the industry professionals cause eighty percent of the problems. We’re showing landowners that there are people of character in the timber industry—foresters who might not be putting their names on billboards. Right now, they survive because they do good work and word gets around. We want to connect those foresters with the people who will benefit from them.”
Timber Update believes their service is so valuable to the timber industry that they offer it for free to landowners. All they ask in return is for landowners to take advantage of the educational media on Timber Update’s YouTube page—also free.
“We’re making it cool to manage timberland,” Griffith says. “People are inheriting land and wondering ‘Well, what now?’ Timber Update is here so that he next generation of landowners has the same type of networking and learning resources available as other industries—yes, we develop apps. We’re clearing up misconceptions about timber management. Sometimes landowners tell me, ‘The woods are for the animals.’ And I respond: Yes, you’re right. So let’s make the best home for animals by properly stewarding the woods.”
Despite the anti-green label some media sources might give them, foresters are the quintessential keepers of the trees. And as kin to the Lorax, foresters herald themselves as guardians of wildlife, mediators between defenseless nature and a consuming public. Sadly, many people are unaware of how timberland management leads to healthier habitats. Timber Update is prepared to address this and other misconceptions with a steady stream of informative media.
“We don’t educate in the classroom sense,” Griffith said. “We’re educating people the same way Red Bull opens the public’s eyes to how skateboarding is awesome. In a two-minute video we’re not going to make someone an expert about the timber industry, but we can show them why managing timberland is a good thing for the owner and the ecosystem.”
Another misunderstanding that some landowners have is the nature of the relationship between landowner and forester. “A forester’s job managing timber is kind of like a stock broker’s job managing stocks,” Griffith said. “Maximizing the value of trees requires expertise. Landowners want to get the most for their timber, so they consult the experts, the foresters. But when a forester is able to get the most, the landowner suddenly forgets the hard work and insider networking that contributed to their gain—they forget to feed the goose that gave them the golden egg. In general, there is little value for experts in timber. I’ve seen my dad cut himself out of a commission in order to make the landowner happy. He’s that kind of guy. And there are many other foresters out there just like him.”
But the miserly behavior from some landowners does not imply that they are lacking virtue. According to Griffith, the public simply does not know. “Most foresters are poor marketers,” he says. “They might be incredible at brokering timber and improving the value of land, but they don’t know how to advertise their professional worth to a landowner. Timber Update gives excellent foresters the exposure they deserve.”
Another issue facing foresters is that landowners cannot see a daily increase in the dollar value of their timber. While the trees may be growing, no price ticker runs along their trunk bottoms. Without being reminded of the value or seeing the benefit of wise management, timberland owners are less inclined to appreciate the work of a forester over a span of decades. Once again, Timber Update has a solution. “We recently launched an app that updates landowners as their timber is cut and hauled to the mill. We call it LoggerLog. It’s an effort to include landowners in the process so they’ll be more willing to trust the guys busting their tails in the woods.”
Griffith believes that, like other industries, the timber and land management industry is responsible for accurately marketing the value of its professionals. Timber Update is here to help. “The solutions to the timber industry’s problems won’t come from government regulation, but rather consumer education. Through our website and videos, landowners can enjoy learning how to become more responsible—because we make it easy. We remove the barriers to entry into forest management by offering modernized education and reliable networking.”
For Taylor Griffith, Timber Update is not only about giving landowners tools to properly steward their land, it’s about improving the entire industry. “Timber Update will soon be available for landowners from Georgia to Washington to get a better understanding of what the timberland management process looks like,” he says.
His expectations are high, but only because he has learned from his father’s experiences, mixed in modern ingenuity, and entered the market with an optimist’s chin. And perhaps this is what it takes to update any industry: one son who climbs from his father’s foundation to get above the tree line, look out across the terrain, and declare change.
Written by Matthew Noxsel